Americans who lost their homes and belongings to wildfires that spread across the western United States over the past months are struggling to rebuild their lives in the aftermath.
Rachelle McMaster, a single mother of two, lost her trailer home in Otis, Oregon during the Echo Mountain wildfire in early September.
Her sister showed up to her home early in the morning to warn her of the evacuation, and McMaster stepped outside to see the sky filled with a red and orange haze from the wildfires in the area. She quickly evacuated into town, where she was able to get cellphone service and alert the rest of her family she was okay.
McMaster spent the next several hours moving to her sister’s place, and then evacuating from there to a nearby church, where her family once again was forced to evacuate. Both her home and her sister’s were destroyed by the fires.
“The night I found out my trailer was gone, I collapsed, my feet went out from under me,” shared McMaster, who lived in the trailer for the past five years. “The next few days were just a blur for me. About a week later, things reopened and I got to go out to my trailer. It was so surreal to see what used to be a bunch of homes. There was nothing. It was just rubble.”
McMaster lost all her belongings and several family heirlooms in the fire,currently lives in an apartment temporarily because the rent is three-quarters of what she makes in a month working in a nearby assisted living facility. She does not know if she will be able to get a new trailer to replace the one she lost, and she is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign to help rebuild her family’s life.
“My whole life was in that trailer,” McMaster added.”It’s still very surreal, even a month afterwards. I’ll go out there and still have a hard time understanding it.”
This year has been the most active year on record for wildfires on the U.S. West Coast. According to data compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center, as of October 16 over 14,000 structures in the U.S. were destroyed by wildfires so far in 2020, with estimated fire suppression costs exceeding $3 billion, which doesn’t include the costs in damage to properties and structures.
The climate crisis doubled the area burned by wildfire in the region between 1984 to 2015, according to research cited in the federal government’s climate assessment.
In California, a record area of more than 4 million acres burned in 2020, over twice the amount of land burned in the state in a single year.
Sarah Ann Howe and her partner lost the home they rented to the wildfire in Mad River, California in August, and their dog, Wayne, died in the fire after her partner was unable to get back to the house to save him.
“It came out of nowhere. The day was calm. The sky was blue, There were still fires burning in the hills, but there was no immediate threat to our house. It just came so fast, and there was no stopping it,” said Howe. “The whole grievance process is like losing a loved one.”
They attempted to evacuate with their RV trailer, but their truck broke down in the process of leaving. Fortunately, they were helped by strangers, and it was towed to a parking lot.
Howe and her partner are currently staying in a hotel room with their infant daughter with assistance from Red Cross. They are beginning the process of seeing what they qualify for with banks to get a new home and raising money through GoFundMe.
“It’s been hard staying in a hotel room with a baby, but we’re making it work,” Howe added.
Ram Moore and his partner, Maribeth McCracken, have struggled to receive relief since losing their home in the Happy Camp, California wildfire in early September. They used what funds they were able to raise from GoFundMe to purchase a new vehicle after their van broke down after the fires.
“It’s been one headache after the other,” said Moore. “It’s a nightmare scenario.”
Moore and McCracken have shuffled around temporary housing, hoping to find permanent, stable housing in the area while digging through the ashes of their property to salvage what they can find.
Both lost their jobs after the fire, as Moore’s equipment he used for music production was burned and McCracken hasn’t been able to return to work in homecare.
Twice FEMA denied them relief, and they’ve been going back and forth with the Red Cross for relief.. Meanwhile, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are struggling to get their children set up with online learning through Zoom.
“My family is very stressed out. We see a lot of big fundraisers and donation sites for this fire, but it seems impossible to get any help. You have to be at the right place at the right time,” Moore added. “I’m afraid we are going to be on the streets in a week.”
JulieAnn Steinbergerand her partner, who lived in Santa Rosa, California, lost their home to wildfire in the beginning of October. They recently moved to their fourth temporary housing unit since losing their home.
A GoFundMe was started for the family by a friend to help them recover.
“There’s a tremendous pain, an added depth of grief of the community being swept away—not only your house, your things, your neighbor, but your whole community, your whole neighborhood. It’s a real profound change,” sharedSteinberger.
Rachel Kalb, a single mother of two twins in Talent, Oregon, lost her home in the Almeda fire, which destroyed the entire town in early September.
The morning the fires swept through the area Kalb dropped her children off at a local YMCA. She was somewhat concerned but unaware of how quickly the fires would spread.
“I grew up here and lived here on and off throughout my life. The conditions were never something I experienced before, that dry, that hot and these crazy winds,” Kalb said. “As the day grew on it kept growing. I didn’t think it was going to take out almost two complete towns.”
By the time Kalb headed home after dropping off her children, the freeway was shut down by the fires and traffic was backed up from people evacuating. She picked up her children and drove to her parents’ home in Ashland, Oregon, where they now live because their house was lost in the fire.
“I had moved into this home in June. I was living in student family housing for the past few years getting my master’s degree, raising my twins, and finally found this beautiful home,” added Kalb.
According to Kalb, the area has a housing shortage at the moment and rental prices are high. She attempted to apply for federal relief but was denied a disaster loan because she has student loans. She is currently raising money for her and her children through a GoFundMe campaign.
“It’s emotionally draining,” Kalb added. “There’s a lot to wade through, figuring out what to get when you lose everything, but also dealing with the post traumatic stress, grief, and triggering memories.”
Tifany Reames, who lives with her parents and 11 year old son, also lost her home to the fire in Talent, Oregon. She is also raising money through crowdfunding and hoping to find a new home.
“It’s been a struggle to find housing big enough or that allows pets. Rent is high in southern Oregon, and I feel like homeowners raised rents after the Almeda fire. Help is slim due to so many people being without homes,” said Reames.
Reames Is currently in temporary housing and considered leaving the area to find a home her family could afford.
“We lost all kinds of sentimental things that can’t be replaced,” she shared. “A lot of paperwork we need for a home was burned, so we have slowly been trying to replace that to see if we qualify.”